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Uncovering the Histories and Pre-Histories of Queer Tango: Contextualizing and Documenting an Innovative Form of Social Dancing

Authors:
  • The Queer Tango Project

Abstract

Attempting to uncover and document the history, or rather histories and pre-histories, of queer tango is difficult. Superficially, the history ought to be easy. The term “queer tango” barely existed before 2001 when it was first used by LGBT dancers in Hamburg, Germany. It was perceived of by them as a riposte to “hetero-normative” leader-follower relationships in mainstream Argentinian tango, proposing instead women as leaders, men as followers, same sex couples and “active” rather than passive followers. Queer tango has subsequently been characterized by the emergence around the world of queer tango organizations, of international festivals, and an international community of dancers, thriving by contact through social media. Yet as the author, who is collaborating with writers and dancers Birthe Havmøller and Olaya Aramo in editing The Queer Tango Book , an online anthology of writings about queer tango, has found out, there is still no settled agreement as to what, precisely, the term means; there is disagreement about the premise that “hetero-normative” tango was quite as oppressive to women in the ways it was originally made out to be, and there is no agreement—indeed so far, precious little discussion—as to which dance practices in Buenos Aires and beyond from the late nineteenth century onward might legitimately be enlisted as forming the pre-history. Were the men-only prácticas, which ran for decades, a part of it? Or women teaching each other at home? When so little was written down, how is one to find out?
Uncovering the Histories and Pre-Histories of Queer Tango: contextualizing
and documenting an innovative form of social dancing
Ray Batchelor
Abstract: Attempting to uncover and document the history, or rather histories and
pre-histories of Queer Tango is difficult. Superficially, the history ought to be
easy. The term ‘Queer Tango’ barely existed before 2001 when it was first used
by LGBT dancers in Hamburg, Germany. It was perceived of by them as a riposte
to ‘hetero-normative’ leader-follower relationships in mainstream Argentinian
tango, proposing instead women as leaders, men as followers, same sex couples
and ‘active’ rather than passive followers. Queer Tango has subsequently been
characterized by the emergence around the world of Queer Tango organizations,
of international festivals and an international community of dancers, thriving by
contact through social media. Yet as the author, who is collaborating with writers
and dancers Birthe Havmøller and Olaya Aramo in editing The Queer Tango
Book, an online anthology of writings about Queer Tango, has found out, there is
still no settled agreement as to what, precisely the term means; there is
disagreement about the premise that ‘hetero-normative’ tango was quite as
oppressive to women in the ways it was originally made out to be; and there is no
agreement – indeed so far, precious little discussion – as to which dance practices
in Buenos Aires and beyond from the late 19th century onwards might legitimately
be enlisted as forming the pre-history. Were the men-only prácticas which ran for
decades, a part of it? Or women teaching each other at home? When so little was
written down, how is one to find out?
The innocent abroad in searching for a definition of Queer Tango and its history,
might turn to Wikipedia (Wikipedia 2014) for enlightenment:
The Queer tango movement which revives the origins of tango as a same-
sex couple dance is very recent. It was founded in Germany, in
Hamburg…in 2001…
…and in doing so, apparently imply both a history – stretching back to 2001 – and
perhaps ‘pre-history’ where those ‘origins’ lie, and whose reach is more
indeterminate. A further Wikipedia page purporting to represent the ‘History of
the Queer Tango movement’ includes the following from Christine Denniston:
Because of a shortage of women in the immigrant population, there were
really only two practical ways for a man to get close to a woman under these
circumstances. One was to visit a prostitute and the other was to dance. The
men practicing together, looking for the best ways to please a woman when
they danced with her, preparing for that rare moment when they actually did
have a woman in their arms, were the people who created the Tango as a
dance.
…followed by an odd discussion about 20th century European postcards showing
women dancing tango together, and critiquing the imagery as generated for the
male gaze. As this unsatisfactory entry makes plain, before embarking on the task
of ‘making history’ the historian needs first to ask: What is Queer Tango and how
‘queer’ is it? How far back should one go? What types of data can legitimately be
referred to? And – given that until the welcome appearance of The Queer Tango
Book in 2015, no single work has been devoted to Queer Tango - who among the
tango scholars can be of use to us in this undertaking?1
What is Queer Tango and how ‘queer’ is it?
I do not propose settling these question here. Indeed I doubt, at present [2104]
they can be settled. Queer Tango is in a dynamic state and there are informal and
formal uses of the word ‘queer’, which is sometimes taken as simply a more
assertive replacement for ‘gay’ or at others, interchangeable with ‘LGBT’ while
for yet another group it throws out a link to ‘queer theory’ which challenges to
normative binaries of ‘woman-man’ ‘queer-straight’ and so on, Different people
have different reasons for wanting to arrive at definitions and less obviously,
‘what it is’ might more accurately be defined by ‘what people do’, or rather dance
than by language and irepresentaion. Queer Tango is defined by different groups
of interested people. Chief among these are those who prescribe by publishing
manifestos as to how and why it is to be danced. Perhaps the best known and most
substantial comes from Mariano Docampo, dancer, writer and professor of
literature (Docampo 2009) here in a translation from Spanish on her blog:
Tango Queer is a tango environment open for everyone. It is a meeting
point to socialize, exchange, learn, and practice Tango as a new way of
communication.
In Tango Queer nobody takes for granted neither your sexual orientation
nor your choice of taking either one role or the other. What is "normal"
here is the difference and when you dance you do it with whomever you
want to and taking the role you prefer.
While Docampo’s definition is sophisticated and locates Queer Tango in a clear
relationship with queer theory (it is open to the historian to adopt the tools of
queer theory, or not), it cannot account for all the ways in which Queer Tango
manifests itself. For that and a more vivid sense of what Queer Tango actually is,
reference might be made to how those involved in it represent themselves. A
growing body of digital ephemera with language and imagery litters the channels
of social media. ‘TanGay Milano’ ‘la tua pratica di tango gay lesbico queer’ the
first every Queer Tango event in Milan was publicized by an image of two men
dancing together. How should it be represented? Do you show women dancing
together? Or a woman leading a man? Or, indeed, a man leading a women? Or
any combinations in any one image? These issues re-emerge in the manner in
which Queer Tango is received in and reported on in the wider world, and again –
independent of language and imagery – in Queer Tango practice, what people do.
Indeed, I have spent years listening to exchanges where issues like these feature,
exchanges as likely to be at two o’clock in the morning sat on the wall outside a
milonga at the Heilige Kreuz Kirche in Berlin during an International Queer
Tango Festival as at any more formal debating venue. In reconciling, formal with
informal, I offer the following as a subjective account of the tacit set of
assumptions which often underlie such discussion at to what is and is not Queer
Tango: tango dancing is commonly thought more securely classified as Queer
Tango dancing to the extent that:
1. The sexual orientations of the dancers correspond to LGBT ‘norms’
2. Conventional gender roles are challenged because:
a. Both dancers in a couple are of the same gender; or
b. Conventional gender roles in a couple are reversed
3. Those dancing believe they are dancing Queer Tango
4. The dancing occurs is an overtly Queer Tango context
5. What they dance corresponds to the observer’s precepts of what Queer
Tango is
How far back?
The 2001 ‘cut off point’ for the history of actual Queer Tango, that is, the self-
conscious pursuit of tango dancing as a political and social innovation is sensible,
but not quite clean. Consistent with wider social and political developments, there
was a sex tango venue in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, Tango Mujer, the all-woman
tango group performed in New York in 1996 and further research might well
bring further overtly social and political tango to light. Even so, only criteria
three, four and five can be applied in this more modern period. While they skirt
around defining Queer Tango, they allow that those dancing are nonetheless be
referring to conceptions of it. Without the concept, however fluid’, there is no
Queer Tango. Even so, given the issues and practices which Queer Tango
addresses or incorporates, criteria one and two can be usefully applied throughout
and most especially into times and places where Queer Tango never was. Quite
how this might work becomes clearer once the criteria are applied to candidate
data.
What types of data?
From the late 19th century to date, with perhaps biases towards rioplatinese
evidence and more about men, than about women, the historian is confronted by
many different kinds of data: We have photographs of same sex dancing; the
representations of tango dancing on sheet music and elsewhere; tango as
represented on stage; there is rich seam of both historical dance clips and, moving
towards the present, interviews with dancers recalling mid-twentieth century
dance practices when they were young. And do we admit looking beyond the
dancing itself, towards tango lyrics, and the lives of those who wrote them such as
the notorious Andrés Cepada or sang them, such as the canonised Carlos Gardel?
The ‘same sex origin’ story – by which is meant men dancing with men - is a case
in point. It is routinely trotted out in various forms, in stories dancers tell one
another garnered from who knows where, to the slightly awkward, hyper-macho
dance sketches which figuring in some tango shows (Tobin, 1998, 80). The many
historical photographs stretching back to the 1890s from Argentina and Uruguay.
showing men dancing with one another appear to back this assertion up, but in
what ways and to what extent? One photograph in particular from 1926 of men
dancing in the street apparently late at night with a seated bandneon player in the
middle has done the rounds, not least on Queer Tango websites. What is to be
made of them? The issues come to the fore: what are these men doing? What dot
hey think they are doing? Who is to say? And to what extent can such an image
be claimed for – however informal – the history of Queer Tango? The foolhardy
will answer with unwise certainty.
Who can help us?
Who, then has written about tango in ways which the Queer Tango historian
might find valuable? For the most part, the writers are also dancers. I note here
only the works for which they are best known. Christine Denniston (Denniston,
2007) dances teaches and writes about tango. The strength of her writing is that it
is based on her personal and, now, historical experiences of dancing during the
so-called ‘tango renaissance’ in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. Not only did she
dance, she talked to dancers, many much older than herself and she listened
carefully to what they had to say. In addition, she is able to report what it was like
for a woman to begin dancing as a leader in that time and place as this is what she
did. The strength of her pronouncements on – say, the men dancing together
aspect touched on in her quoted remarks – is that it is rooted in what her informal
informants told her. The weakness, if weakeness it is, is that she respects and
respected her these tango veterans so much that she is, perhaps inclined invariably
to take what they told her at face value. It has been argued that her work, while it
is written with admirable clarity and personal authority, lacks the rigor of more
conventional scholarship. This is not a criticism which can be levelled at Eduardo
Archetti (Archetti 1999). Archetti was born Argentinian, is an academic and
worked for decades on Masculinities: Football, polo and the tango in Argentina.
However, he can’t dance, and has to rely on his dancing informants’ views on
tango lyrics to arrive at views of masculinity in tango, rendering them abstract,
rather than embodied. Jeffrey Tobin can and does dance and provides credible
accounts of competing styles of male dancing in the Buenos Aires of 16 years ago
in his essay ‘Tango and the Scandal of Homosocial Desire’ (Tobin, 1998, 79) and
again in ‘Models of Machismo: The Troublesome Masculinity of Argentine Male
Tango-Dancers’ (Tobin, 2009, 139). His connection (husband) with perhaps the
most famous of the dance scholars, Marta Savigliano noted here should not go
unnoticed. Her Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (Savigliano, 1995)
was based on authoritative scholarlship. Like Archetti, Savigliano looks ar
maleness and national identity, although for our purposes, her central pre-
occupation with tango’s post-colonial dimensions are interesting, but tangential.
The last author reviewed here, Magli Siakin (Saikin, 2004) took issues with
Savigliano’s dismissive, negative references to homosocial or homosexual bonds
between male dancers and casual inclusion of the judgements of male authors that
women dancing together in brothels only did so for the pleasure of men, rather
than each other. In my view, Saikin’s work is the most genuinely useful, in that it
provides a model of carefully martialled contemporary data, chiefly a rich vein
drawn from psychology and criminology where the LGBT people figure as
subjects. She is especially good at tracking the virtual eradication of the overt
homoerotic dimensions of tango as it moved from the ‘savage’ state among pimps
and criminals who did didn’t really care much about the sexual proclivities of the
people they mixed with, into the salons and respectable society (Saikin 2004, 129
author’s translation):
It is not only important to prove that, indeed, there were pure same sex dance
couples, but also to explore how it could be that the homoerotic component of
such situations definitively disappeared. Only in this way can the homosexual
contribution the Argentinian tango be recovered
What next...?
Saikin’s study was written in her first language, Spanish (she is Argentinian)
and was then translated into German for publication there, where she works. As
the notional ‘home’ of tango, existing sources are commonly focussed on tango in
Argentina and to lesser extent Uruguay, yet tango – and Queer Tango – is to be
found throughout the world in countless cultural contexts and these dimensions
beckon. I am personally convinced some more systematice and serious study is
needed into the relationship of tango, Queer Tango, sex and intimacy – with a
particular emphasis on this last. A deeper appreciation of the histories of Queer
Tango might inform contemporary practices and stimulate further developments.
In conclusion, the study of the history of Queer Tango is NOT dependent on a
stable definition, even if it ought probably to arise out of the common issues,
themes and practices which those who dance it and seek to define it habitually
address discuss or dance. Queer theory may have a special value here, in freeing
us from the need invariably to seek only in history only those who correspond to
overly prescriptive, modern LGBT stereotypes. In venturing into the past we
ought perhaps to travel light, leaving such devices at home. The data is
undoubtedly rich and highly suggestive – although again, alongside imagination,
extreme caution and rigorous scholarship will be indispensible. A better informed
global picture may emerge as a result. Doing so may help rectify an apparent
boundless appetite for tango myth-making – quite as strong in Queer Tango as in
the mainstream – which obscures and obliterates the homoerotic contribution to
tango and its history. This, in turn may contribute to our own senses of identity
and stimulate more debate as to what Queer Tango is and could be. In short, a
better grasp of our history may change how we dance.
References
Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queer_Tango accessed 9 February 2105
Eduardo, P. Archetti, Masculinities: Football, polo and the tango in Argentina,
(Oxford: Berg Books, 1999)
Christine Denniston, The Meaning of Tango: The Story of the Argentinian Tango,
(London: Portico, 2007)
Christine Dennistone, ‘Clichés about Tango Origins of the Dance’ 2003 from the
website of History of Tango, http://www.history-of-tango.com/tango-origins.html
accessed 9 Feb 2015
Mariana.Docampo, ‘What is Tango Queer?’, Buenos Aires Tango Queer
Blogspot, ‘http://buenosairestangoqueer.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/what-is-queer-
tango.html (accessed 3 November 2014)
Margaret Julia Hames, ""I Have No Pride": William Kennedy Laurie Dickson In
His Own Words - An Autobiography,"
Proceedings of the New York State Communication Association: Vol. 2010,
Article 6.
Available at: http://docs.rwu.edu/nyscaproceedings/vol2010/iss1/6
Beate Littig, ‘On high heels: A praxiography of doing Argentine tango’ European
Journal of Women’s Studies, 20(4) 2013, 455–467,
Magali Saikin, Tango und Gender: Indentitäten und Geschelchterrollen in
Argentinischen Tango, (Stuttgart: Abrazos Books, 2004)
Jorge Salessi, Médicos, maleantes y maricas: Higiene, criminología y
homosexualidad en la construcción de la nación Argentina (Buenos Aires 1871 –
1914), (Buenos Aires: Beatriz Viterbo Editoria, 1995)
Robert Farris Thompson, Tango: The Art History of Love, (New York: Vintage
Books, 2005)
Jeffrey Tobin, ‘Tango and the Scandal of Homosocial Desire’, in The Passion of
Music and Dance: Body Gender and Sexuality by William Washabaugh, (Oxford
and New York: Berg, 1998)
Jeffrey Tobin, ‘Models of Machismo: The Troublesome Masculinity of Argentine
Male Tango-Dancers’ in Tango in Translation: Tanz zwischen Medien, Kulturen,
Kunst und Politik, by G??? Klein (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2009), 139 – 169
Rikki Wilkins, Queer Theory, Gender Theory: an instant Primer, (Los Angeles:
Alyson Books, 2004)
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
1!Since!this!paper!was!given!in!2014,!Kathy!Davis!has!added!to!the!
scholarship!surrounding!Queer!Tango!in!her!2015!book,!Dancing'Tango:'
passionate'Encounters'in'a'Globalizing'World,!devoting!a!chapter,!‘Queering!
Tango’!to!the!phenomenon.!As!this!is!a!record!of!the!paper!delivered!at!the!
CORD!Conference,!no!reference!is!made!to!Davis’s!scholarship!here.!
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Clichés about Tango Origins of the Dance' 2003 from the website of History of Tango, http://www.history-of-tango.com/tango-origins
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